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East of the Harvey Canal, people are rattled by slow progress in plugging its gaps
Monday, June 05, 2006
By Meghan Gordon
West Bank bureau

A symbol of New Orleans' inadequate hurricane protection, the 17th Street Canal stays bathed in light while crews work around the clock to close the drainage outlet before the next storm surge fills Lake Pontchartrain. Advertisement

Across the Mississippi River, another waterway remains just as vulnerable to a hurricane's monster tide. Yet owners of homes and businesses east of the Harvey Canal must endure another nerve-wracking hurricane season before the precarious hole in the West Bank's federal levee system is plugged.

"The path of least resistance is right here," Peggy Guthrie said from her living room on Vulcan Drive in Harvey, a home that unmanned pumps allowed to soak with 2 feet of Hurricane Katrina's rain. "We're the sacrificial lamb for Jefferson Parish."

Congress allocated $147.6 million in December to speed completion of a sector gate across the Harvey Canal and a 4 1/2-mile levee southeast of the floodgate, which would complete the West Bank's first end-to-end wall of hurricane protection. Although the floodgate is expected to be ready in August, the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to acquire the land for the levee and doesn't expect to finish the wall until September 2007.

That leaves nervous homeowners like Guthrie in fear for two more hurricane seasons, when a tidal surge could sweep up Lake Cataouatche, slam into the new floodgate and spill over the Harvey Canal's unprotected east bank.

Realizing they could take a substantial hit like St. Bernard Parish and other Katrina-wracked areas, neighborhood groups directly in the path of that so-far-imaginary surge have pressed Gov. Kathleen Blanco and parish officials to do what they can to speed the floodwall project.

Until both the sector gate and floodwall are complete, the small, unfinished gap in the miles and miles of West Bank levees could spell destruction for neighborhoods as far as Algiers if a powerful hurricane approaches at the wrong angle.

"Did Katrina make everyone a lot more aware of the fact that we're vulnerable? Clearly," said Cocie Rathborne, chairman of Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard's committee to investigate Category 5 hurricane protection. "Had that 25-foot wall of water been 30 miles to the west, 40 miles to the west, we would have been totally under water."

Images of vulnerability

Although Katrina provided the most vivid images of the region's vulnerability, it isn't the first bullet the West Bank's incomplete levee system has dodged.

In 1998, Tropical Storm Frances showed West Jefferson and Algiers the danger that the slightest tidal surge poses to the Harvey Canal. Frances' swell came within 6 inches of washing away the low patchwork of levees and drowning the West Bank, but the vulnerability it revealed spurred state legislators to secure the local financing needed to finish the area's hurricane protection system.

The scene played out again during Hurricane Rita, as Jefferson Parish and West Jefferson levee district officials watched the surge rise dangerously close to the top of the low levees.

Those close calls and the damage left in Katrina's wake have put public pressure on the Corps to finish the sector gate and floodwall.

Just south of the Lapalco Boulevard bridge, the gate would stop a wall of water up to 11.5 feet when the entire project is complete. But until the 11.5-foot floodwall is built and tied into the gate, the interim stage would provide protection up to 6 feet above sea level this hurricane season, corps structural engineer Sam Mosrie said.

That means areas north of the sector gate remain vulnerable, even though its doors would swing shut in advance of a hurricane.

"If it goes over, everybody floods," said Carol Burdine, a corps project manager.

Despite the repeated close calls, residents' awareness of that risk decreases the farther they are from the Harvey Canal, Rathborne said.

Businesses left unprotected

The imagery becomes even scarier for the strip of businesses directly on the canal.

Land owners along the industrial corridor have erected their own mishmash of dirt and rock levees over the years. Waves from Hurricane Rita's tide lapped the tops of the private walls and, in spots, pushed through cracked bulkheads and bubbled up at the back of some yards.

But while the time bomb for neighborhoods east of Peters Road stops ticking in fall 2007, businesses on the water's edge won't receive protection from the new floodwall. In April, the corps shifted its design from adjacent to the canal to Peters Road, on the east end of businesses' properties. Although the cost of the floodwall is not known, estimates before Hurricane Katrina projected it at $60 million.

Since the design change, a businessman whose property was taken out of the protection zone is attempting to build support for scrapping the floodwall project and moving the sector gate several miles south to make the entire canal less vulnerable.

As a temporary solution, the Harvey Canal Industrial Association has asked the West Jefferson Levee District to add 3 1/2 feet of dirt to the private waterfront levees to provide protection this hurricane season and next. President Brian Heiden said the group would secure approval from land owners and leave the corps out of the planning.

Gerald Spohrer, executive director of the West Jefferson Levee District, said the agency has clay on hand to donate to the project, but he stopped short of committing the district's money to cover the entire project.

"We'll do whatever we need to do to cooperate to try to get as much elevation and stability along the east bank of the canal as possible," Spohrer said.

But for the permanent solution, the corps is committed to its new design along Peters Road, which would leave a triangle of businesses unprotected.

Corps project manager Jackie Purrington said building the permanent floodwall on the water's edge takes too many engineering risks, especially because barges could cause underwater damage unnoticed by routine surveys.

The decision leaves land owners such as Ray Fuenzalida fuming. General manager of Harvey Canal Limited Partnership, Fuenzalida fears the floodwall's new alignment dooms his multimillion-dollar investments. He said it could nudge the corporate owners of Neighbors Offshore Corp. to relocate from the property he leases to them and could make it impossible to find a new tenant.

"Would you really come look at my yard on the wrong side of the wall?" he said. "I'm not going to find anybody to rent it."

Other businesses affected include Boomtown Casino, which announced in January plans for a 200-room hotel that now would sit outside the floodwall. Spokesman Charlie Frederick said the corps' design change cost the casino about $70,000 that it spent preparing a piece of its property for a new marketing office, because the corps needs the land for the levee.

Though corporate representatives have asked the corps to reconsider the alignment, Frederick said the casino might have to build its own levee circling the property and slip that houses the riverboat.

"If I were a betting man, I'd say it goes along Peters Road," Frederick said. "But we're not going to stand in anyone's way. . . . What comes first: life or property?"

Risky business

Nevertheless, Fuenzalida challenges the corps' current design as a risk to both life and property, because each plant entrance requires a gate in the floodwall. If one fails, the entire system fails.

Pointing to the millions of dollars poured into failed levees protecting New Orleans' drainage canals, Fuenzalida said the corps is repeating the same mistake on the West Bank. He said the current design creates a storm surge funnel that would inundate the industrial corridor and put extreme pressure on floodwalls protecting West Jefferson.

Fuenzalida wants the sector gate moved from Lapalco Boulevard south to the intersection of the Harvey Canal and the Intracoastal Canal.

"Why don't you stop it before it gets here?" he said, adding that the Harvey Canal could stand the same fate as the 17th Street Canal. "They're retrofitting something right now that they're going to have to be doing here 10 years from now."

Spohrer said such a change could delay the West Bank's hurricane protection for five years or longer and cause the price tag to soar, because it would require a mega-pumping station to replace pumps cut off by a sector gate farther south.

Jefferson Parish Councilman Chris Roberts said he has tried to convince dissenting businesses that it isn't in their best interest to fight the corps' revised plan. He said they would be at fault if their complaints delay the floodwall, and neighborhoods flood before it's built.

"I'm not going to sacrifice 200,000 homes for a few business owners," Roberts said. "I feel sorry for them, but this project has been delayed entirely too long."

Civic groups, volunteer firefighters and West Bank politicians won what they consider a victory last week after petitioning Blanco to commandeer the land needed for the floodwall. The governor's attorney signaled her support for the action, which would take much less time than the corps' usual means of acquiring property.

Blanco's attorney told West Bank officials she would sign an order as soon as the corps submits drawings of the land it needs, which is expected to take until early July. Still, construction isn't expected to begin until at least August, Spohrer said.

No encores, please

Despite the governor's support, Harvey and Gretna remain in the cross hairs this hurricane season. And they have more than the unfinished levee to fray their nerves.

They worry about repeat of the flooding from Katrina's rainwater that was allowed to pile up in their streets and fill their homes when pumping station operators turned off the machinery and evacuated to Washington Parish.

After trashing the parish's plans for evacuating essential employees, Broussard launched a series of detailed contingencies for pump operators and other employees. He has vowed to keep them in Jefferson Parish no matter what powerful storm approaches.

Despite the assurances, Guthrie can't shake the thought of more flooding this year. When she and her neighbors talk about the nightmare they've gone through to repair their homes, they share a common conclusion -- one that hinges on the canal's vulnerability and their dependence on pumping stations.

The same phrase echoes across the neighborhood.

"If it floods again, I'm gone," said Paul Pruett, who lives across Vulcan Drive in a house that never flooded before Katrina. "It almost killed me this time."

John Bergeron, 78, knows the feeling. His 33-year-old house on South Friendship Drive in Woodland West flooded for the first time during Katrina, making life hell for several months.

He and his wife lived out of suitcases and hopped from house to house to split the burden among their children. After moving into the renovated home in February, Bergeron said he sometimes thinks about what they would do if they flooded again.

"I don't know whether we can go through that again, believe me," Bergeron said. "I'll probably just say, 'Hey, sell it as is.' "

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Meghan Gordon can be reached at or (504) 826-3785.